HOLLYWOOD WISDOM HAS ALWAYS SEEN KEANU REEVES AS THE PRETTY BOY WHO WOULD NEVER CONVINCE WITH HIS ACTING SKILLS. NOW IT SEEMS THAT KEANU WAS SIMPLY IN TRAINING TO BECOME ONE OF THE HOTTEST ACTORS OF HIS GENERATION.
by Teresa Nerney
Critics could never figure out Keanu Reeves. Gifted or lucky? You could call it the $350 million question, because it has taken the box-office grossings of his latest sci-fi thriller, The Matrix, to provide the answer. And with two sequels on the way winning him a $30 million pay deal, Reeves is not only one of the highest-paid actors of his generation, he's set to fill Arnie's shoes as Hollywood's new action hero, and hotly tipped to play the new Batman.
"I'm a meathead. I can't help it, man" - a statement typical of Reeves since he first shot to fame in the mid-1980s with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Over the years he has been noncommittal in interviews, spurring some critics to compare this inability to communicate with his acting. To his credit he had held his own with some of the best actors - remember Dangerous Liaisons and The Devil's Advocate? He had worked with some of the most respected directors, including Bertolucci, Coppola and Van Sant. And he had proven box-office appeal in the $121 million movie, Speed. All of this, however, couldn't convince the cynics that behind it all, he wasn't the meathead he often purported to be.
When Reeves turned down a $12 million offer for the sequel to Speed, opting instead to appear in a Winnipeg production of Hamlet and tour with his rock band Dog Star, there were rumours that he'd given up acting altogether. To those who knew him it came as no surprise, because he has always claimed music and hockey to be his first loves. When he was growing up in Toronto his grandmother had a recording studio in her home and he would sit listening to musicians like Alice Cooper cut tracks for their albums. "Music and hockey were in my blood long before acting."
He dropped out of school in his teens. "He wasn't quite, well ... with it," said one former teacher. "He always left his books at home or forgot his homework. But he'd just smile and go back home to get them." As for acting, he says he spent much of his childhood pretending. Family life wasn't very stable - he was born in Beirut but his mother and father split up soon after. His mother then brought him and his little sister, Kim, to New York, and went on to marry three more times. "I did a lot of pretending as a child. It was my way of coping... When I was 15, I started doing some acting and I got hooked because it was like hockey in that it allowed me to be somebody different."
He caused a stir in Toronto when he starred in a homoerotic play called Wolfboy, and later in his career there were rumours that he was having an affair with entertainment mogul David Geffen. True to Reeves' form, he said he wasn't gay, then added, "but ya never know..." Latest news is that he and his girlfriend are expecting their first child.
After Wolfboy he got a cameo in the hockey movie Youngblood, and finally moved to LA in pursuit of his dream. In 1986 he caught the attention of directors as a rebel teenager in River's Edge, beginning a career that saw him steadily rise - until he suddenly seemed to lose the plot.
He was good in the Bill and Ted movies, and cut a dash with River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (sic. My Own Private Idaho. - Ani). But his performances in Dangerous Liaisons, Little Buddha and Bram Stoker's Dracula were, shall we say, uneven. (Anybody who can keep a straight face watching Dracula while Keanu enquires, in a mock English accent, "is the caahsel faah?" is to be greatly admired.) Keanu bounced back strongly in 1997 with Devil's Advocate, co-starring Al Pacino, before disappearing off the Hollywood radar again.
But while the 'gone missing' myth held sway, Reeves was actually filming The Matrix for over a year in Australia. "It was just the industry's perception of me that changed. I never considered myself anything but a working actor," he says. "I did a bit of touring with the band because I find it so personally fulfilling, but I had to devote 14 months to the preparation of Matrix. That's why I was seemingly out of the scene for so long." It turned out that passing over Speed 2 wasn't such a bad career move at all. He was replaced by Jason Patric and the movie ended up a box-office disaster.
Instead, the 34-year-old actor hit Hollywood with the movie of his career. In The Matrix he played Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer who uses the alias Neo to work as a hacker and fight kung fu in search of the cyber truth. It's a virtual world where people run up walls, electronic scorpions burrow into bellies and bullets freeze in mid-air. Producer Joel Silver had nothing but praise for Reeves' dedication during shooting. "Keanu was amazing. He put his life and career on hold for four months to learn to do the fights in Matrix. Even after intense training and with all the precautions, the actors would hurt their wrists and ribs on a daily basis. Keanu never complained or played the prima donna."
Now creators Andy and Larry Wachowski are working on parts two and three of The Matrix which they plan to release within months of each other. Filming will take place once again in Sydney, and the movies will be shot back to back. Reeves has already signed a contact giving him $30 million to star in the two sequels. He'll have script approval of both films; and, depending on the success of sequel one, could share 15 per cent of the profits of sequel two. In all he stands to earn $100 million from The Matrix. Co-stars Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss will not be getting quite as lucrative a deal but will be back for more kung fu and gunplay.
Meanwhile we will see Reeves in the football comedy The Replacements, in a remake called Sweet November, and then as the lead in the action thriller, The Shooter. These days when asked about acting, he says he has no intention of giving it up. "It's my life's work."
So back to that old question - gifted or lucky? Reeves once compared himself to Mickey Mouse when asked about his doubters. "They don't know who's inside the suit." With The Matrix he has been found out. Forget Arnie and co. Keanu Reeves has officially become the action hero of the 21st century.